Drinking water supplies at two public elementary schools, Joseph Sibilly and James Monroe, contain unacceptably high levels of cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride and dichloromethane.
The Education Department has been served with notices of violation and administrative orders but to date has failed to comply with the conditions and directives of the notices.
According to Carol Aubin, environmental specialist with the Planning and Natural Resource Department's environmental protection division, the problem was uncovered when PNR conducted routine sanitation surveys on the public water systems at territory schools.
The testers discovered not only high bacteria in some systems but also extremely high turbidity. Because of the high turbidity, samples were sent to Caribbean Safe Water Labs for analysis.
At that point PNR was told that the water also contained high levels of volatile organic chemicals, which are known to increase the risk of cancer, liver and kidney disease and anemia.
According to Aubin, the lab already knew about the volatile organic chemicals problem because, in keeping with regulations, the Education Department had taken and tested samples in June that revealed the problem then.
In fact, the water was tested twice once June 1 and again June 29. Both tests revealed that the "maximum contaminant level" of the chemicals was exceeded.
"But they never notified us," Aubin said, which is required by law. "And the lab assumed we already had the results."
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires that PNR be notified immediately of contaminants in the public water supply.
The Education Department was advised Aug. 5 that it must notify the public within 10 days about the contaminated water "by publication of not less than three consecutive days in a newspaper of general circulation in the area served by the system."
To date that has not been done.
Education was also directed to let parents know they should send children to school with their own drinking water.
"With school starting Monday we have concerns about the fact that there has been no public notification, as required," Aubin told St. Thomas Source Friday. "Furthermore, we weren't notified by the Department of Education either. I found out about the problem from the lab when I took in the samples from our survey."
Aubin is also concerned that contaminated water not be used for cooking at the schools.
In an Aug. 10 letter to Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds, the department was directed, among other things, to cut back trees and brush affecting the catchment areas at the schools, clean and screen the gutters, pressure-wash the roofs and empty and clean the cisterns before Aug. 23.
Aubin explained that unlike bacteria, which can be killed or controlled with chlorine, volatile organic chemicals are actually created by a reaction between certain types of plants and algae when mixed with chlorine.
Simmonds could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Neither could Dean Plaskett, PNR commissioner; Hollis Griffin, director of PNR's environmental protection division; or Leonard Reed, assistant director of the division. All were reported to be at Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's press conference.
Aubin said the turbidity in the water at the schools was so high it couldn't be put through a filter.
Failure to comply with the PNR order could result in fines of up to $5,000 per day and additional enforcement actions.